Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

You hear it all the time, at trade shows, in packinghouses, in the fields: “We need to do a better job of attracting new industry talent.”

So urgent is the need, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association created the PMA Education Foundation, which in 2008 changed its name to the Foundation for Industry Talent.

There are all sorts of hurdles to careers in the industry that organizations like PMA FIT are trying to knock down or at least lower.

Take demographics.

Today’s ranks of leaders are dominated by the famously enormous baby boom generation, many of whom are nearing retirement.

The problem is that the generation right behind them isn’t nearly as big.

And Gen Xers and the Gen Yers behind them aren’t exposed to the internships and other outreach efforts that are a staple of other industries.

For many young people, the produce industry, and agriculture in general, isn’t even on their radar.

It’s hard to blame them. As a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study says, “Family farm households allocate a disproportionately large share of their time to farming compared with the share of income they receive from farming.”

Members of my family have farmed land in south-central Nebraska for generations.

But as it stands now, none of my cousins’ kids seem inclined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. (They’ve still got a few high school-aged and younger that could come through for them, however.)

The new USDA study, by the Economic Research Service, sheds a light on the grower end of this dilemma.

“Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance” predictably lays out some of the problems industry members are all too aware of, but it also finds reasons for hope.

First, on the “con” side, the number of young entrepreneurs choosing farming in the U.S. has dropped significantly in recent decades.

In the early ’80s, 38% of principal farm operators had fewer than 10 years of experience farming.

Now, it’s closer to one in four.

Aging population

Farmers also are getting older. In 1982, 16% of operators were under 35. By 2007, the last year for which data was available, just 5% were under 35.

Those starting farming in the 21st century aren’t exactly spring chickens.

The average age of principal operators of beginning farms in 2011 was 49, about a decade younger than the average operator of an established farm.

Beginning farmers also are more likely to rely on non-farm income for their livelihood, according to the USDA study.

And it keeps getting harder for new farmers to afford land.

From 2011 to 2012, for instance, the per-acre value of farm real estate in the U.S. increased by 11%.

You need to buy a lot of those acres before you reach critical mass and starting earning a decent living — if you’re lucky.

Bright spots

But, as I said, the news from this study isn’t all doom and gloom.

“There is some evidence that younger beginning farmers experience higher returns, on average, and are less likely to experience negative returns than older farmers.”

Part of that is likely due to education. About 30% of beginning farmers have a college degree, compared to 23% of established farmers.

One produce-specific piece of good news highlighted in the report concerns the percentage of beginning farms versus established farms.

About 6% of established farms in the U.S. grow fruits, vegetables, tree nuts or other specialty crops, according to the study.

But the percentage of beginning farms growing produce is slightly higher, about 7%.

New farmers also are more likely to piggy-back on many industry trends.

About 19% of beginning farms, for instance, sold their products directly to consumers or stores, compared to 15% among established farms.

There’s hope. In fact, if my cousins’ kids all move to the city, I may encourage my city-raised sons to move to Kearney County, Nebraska, and take up farming.

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